When Your Church Is in the Path of a Deadly Storm
On March 3, 2019, a tornado outbreak hit the Southeast. Over the course of 6 hours, a total of 41 tornadoes ravaged portions of Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. One violent, long-track tornado killed 23 people, injured 97, and decimated the Alabama town where it first touched down.
By the end of May 2019, 500 tornadoes were reported in the U.S., followed by massive rainfall and flooding. Many churches were leveled or severely damaged in these storms, and others have served as shelters for residents during and in the aftermath of devastating storms.
Additionally, hurricane season is underway, so states in the Southeast and other coastal areas will need to be prepared to weather storms and assist hard hit communities.
Is your church prepared for a severe weather outbreak? Do you have a crisis communication plan that your church leaders know how to implement if needed, especially if your church sustains major damage? Do you have a plan for how you'll use your facility and mobilize volunteers if your surrounding community needs disaster relief?
Here are some tips to prepare for extreme weather and how to respond in the aftermath of a natural disaster:
Preparing for Weather Disasters
Numerous websites provide preparedness tips for every type of extreme weather. Review these sites and work with your leadership team to develop a preparedness plan for your church in advance of the most common, extreme weather events, including:
- Tornadoes https://www.ready.gov/tornadoes
- Flooding https://www.floodsmart.gov/flood/first-prepare-for-flooding
- Hurricanes https://www.ready.gov/hurricanes
Learn how your church can renew its influence and impact by becoming a church that is in and for the community.
What to Do Immediately Following a Catastrophic Storm
If your church or surrounding homes and businesses are damaged or leveled by a storm, here are safety tips from Weather.gov for what to do afterward:
- Stay Informed: Continue to listen to local news or a NOAA Weather Radio to stay updated about tornado watches and warnings. Multiple rounds of thunderstorms capable of producing tornadoes are possible during severe weather outbreaks.
- Contact Your Family and Loved Ones: Let your family and close friends know that you're okay so they can help spread the word. Text messages or social media are more reliable forms of communication than phone calls.
- Assess the Damage: After the threat for tornadoes has ended, check to see if your property has been damaged. When walking through storm damage, wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and sturdy shoes. Contact local authorities if you see power lines down. Stay out of damaged buildings. Be aware of insurance scammers if your property has been damaged.
- Help Your Neighbor: If you come across people that are injured and you are properly trained, provide first aid to victims if needed until emergency response teams arrive.
Communication During and After the Storm
Communication is key to a crisis management plan, but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel on this one, according to Jamie Aten, a disaster psychologist and the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois.
In his article, “Creating a Crisis Communication Plan for Your Church,” Aten says, “Think about the ways your church already communicates effectively, and pivot those systems to deliver crisis information. How do you communicate with your church currently? Plan to use those systems that are already in place (e.g., mass texts or calls, mass emails, social media, website, cloud documents). People already know to look there for information and will do so instinctively.”
Don’t forget to plan for what you’ll do if technology goes down, such as email accounts and websites that go down, and cell phone towers that go out or get overloaded during a large-scale disaster.
“After Hurricane Katrina, I came across a church that had spray-painted messages—like ‘Service Sunday 10:00’—on large particle board and debris. They used what they could to communicate crucial information,” says Aten.
Using Social Media During a Disaster
Social media is one of our most powerful tools when mass communication is needed. Jenni Catron, former executive director of Cross Point Church in Nashville, TN, tells about the flood of 2010 and how it made a Twitter believer out of her.
Providing Shelter from the Storm
Many churches leverage their facility to provide shelter for displaced people after a large-scale storm. Writer Rachel Allen discovered the power of church storm shelters after experiencing the devastation of Hurricane Ike in 2008 herself. In her article, “Positioning Your Church as an Emergency Shelter,” Allen shares tips from some of the church leaders she interviewed:
Rowland Hall, Community Impact Pastor at Broadmoor Baptist Church in Madison, Mississippi, oversees nine shelters and has positioned Broadmoor as a conduit for disaster relief in the Jackson, Mississippi-metro area. Hall recommends that leaders contemplate three areas before committing to this type of relief:
• Why does your church want to do this?
• How far (how long) is your church willing to take it?
• Does your church have the resources?
Providing safe shelter from a storm and afterward takes space, communication tools, and money. From a facilities standpoint, churches need to address:
• Overall capacity
• How to handle traffic flow
• How to overcome boredom, accommodate various age groups, and meet personal care needs
"Our building wasn't designed to be a shelter, but we took the good and the bad and did the best we could," says Hall.
Entry spaces should be large enough to facilitate registration, and there should be enough room for
people to eat and sleep, for children to play, and for pets to get outside as needed.
If your facilities aren’t conducive for operating as a shelter, there are other ways you can help after a natural disaster:
- Use your lobby or fellowship hall to serve meals.
- Partner with other churches or the Salvation Army and serve as a food pantry or storage site
- Provide generators to areas without power
- Prepare meals and deliver them to hard hit communities
Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company provides additional tips for providing shelter from a storm at your church in this helpful guide. You can also use their “Providing Temporary Shelter Checklist” to help you set up an effective shelter.
How to Provide Disaster Relief and Recovery
Many churches sent teams to New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Though well-intended, these volunteers often created more chaos and stress on the recovery efforts.
“When disaster strikes,” writes Susan Kim, “often we see heart-wrenching images on television. People have lost everything. Their homes are swept away or lie in a tangled heap. Their belongings are ruined. We immediately want to help – a good intention that stems from compassion for our fellow human beings. However, be certain to couple your compassion with good judgment on the best ways to help disaster survivors.”
Resist the urge to jump from your couch and drive to the disaster site, Kim advises. “When storms strike, often scores of people decide to drive to affected areas. The result? Clogged interstates, a worsening gasoline shortage, and volunteers arriving in droves and diverting the attention of emergency personnel. What to do instead? When you watch or read the breaking news about a disaster, respond immediately – with prayer or a cash donation.”
In her article, Kim offers the top four worst, and best, ways to help after disaster.
Maintain Your Church's Safe Practices for Volunteers
If you’re a church that can open its facilities to house those who have been affected by a natural disaster, it’s wise to still employ background checks both to protect victims from further harm and reduce risks to your church, according to ShareFaith:
“It’s still important to run background checks as part of your due diligence, especially when victims from disaster are at their most vulnerable. Keep in mind that many people who step forward during emergencies are not in your typical volunteer pool — in fact, they may not even be members of your congregation. Particularly when disaster victims include families, it’s vital to carefully screen volunteers — even if they are simply collecting food donations or passing out water bottles at the facility where you’re housing victims.”
Preparing for the Future
Every church needs to be prepared to face a crisis, weather-related or otherwise. One important step you can take is to prepare an inventory of your church’s personal property. It can be a tedious process, but you’ll never regret having your church's belongings documented in case you ever need to file a loss claim.
Your church also may want to consider having someone go through the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program. This nationwide training program educates volunteers about disaster preparedness for the hazards that may impact their area and trains them in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations. CERT builds and enhances the capabilities of volunteers to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.
Finally, take time with your leadership team to consider your church’s “theology of disaster relief.” What are your beliefs about your church’s role in disaster relief and recovery? How can you put your theology to work instead of setting it on a shelf so that you can help people weather every storm? In what particular ways can you use your church facility as part of your disaster response plan?